Farming in the Apostles

Sand Island Farming
Farm worker Axel Anderson with draft horses, Sand Island.

A four-foot cucumber... a 70-pound squash... potatoes eight inches around!

Early advocates for farming in the Apostle Islands were enthusiastic. The soil of the islands, they said, was suitable for fruits, vegetables, small grains, and dairy farming. Even more important, the moderating effect of Lake Superior upon the islands' climate meant that the growing season in the Apostles was some 40 days longer than nearby locations just a short distance inland.

But the expected agricultural boom never took place, and the last island farm was gone before the end of World War II. With their isolation and limited accessibility, farms on the islands could never compete economically with those on the mainland. Today, all that remains of these farms are ruined buildings, the outlines of fields, and a few hardy fruit trees.


The Early Years
Well before the arrival of Europeans, Native Americans raised crops on Madeline Island and elsewhere in the region. Travelers reported that Hurons and Ottawas grew corn in the Chequamegon Bay region, while the Ojibwa grew pumpkins, squash, and corn. During the fur trade era, the American Fur Company maintained gardens and orchards on Madeline Island, to supply the bustling headquarters settlement at LaPointe. As European settlement grew, entrepreneurs and developers made attempts at establishing agriculture in the area. In the years following the Civil War, men such as Henry Rice, founder of Bayfield, and Ozara Stearns, Senator from Minnesota, bought tracts of land on the islands and had them cleared for agricultural use. Farms were established on Rocky, South Twin, and Ironwood Islands, but the schemes were short-lived. As early as 1895, the farm fields were disappearing under second-growth forest.

The Farms of Basswood Island
While developers such as Rice and Stearns failed in their efforts to promote agriculture on the Apostles, a Civil War veteran named Richard McCloud showed that it was possible to establish a viable island farm. McCloud acquired a homestead on Basswood Island in 1865, and by 1870, he had a successful farm that supplied produce to the crews working at a neighboring brownstone quarry. McCloud sold the farm in 1878, and a few years later, the land came into the hands of Elisha K. Brigham, who expanded the operation further. Elsewhere on the island, an entrepreneur named Charles Rudd cleared land for a farm which he proposed to make a showplace for agriculture in the islands. Rudd himself spent much of his time out of the area, and hired a tenant farmer to manage the operation. The farms of Basswood Island did not outlive their owners. Rudd's farm ceased operation when he died in 1897, and Elisha Brigham's death in 1923 signaled the end of farming on Basswood Island.

Roswell Pendergast and Michigan Island
Perhaps the single most influential figure in the area's agricultural development was a Michigan Island lighthouse keeper, Roswell Pendergast. Appointed keeper in 1869, Pendergast planted thousands of fruit trees on the island. Soon he was selling the apples, cherries, peaches, plums and pears that his trees produced, and supplying nursery stock to farmers around the region. As his enterprise expanded, Pendergast eventually found it desirable to move to the mainland, and in 1874, he resigned his position as lighthouse keeper and left the area. The trees that Roswell Pendergast planted are long gone, but his legacy lives on in every orchard of the Bayfield Peninsula. Pendergast was by no means the only one to attempt farming on Michigan Island. Prompted by a belief that the outermost islands of the archipelago were best suited to agriculture, several families and individuals filed homestead claims on Michigan Island. Some of these pioneers stayed only a year, others held on longer, but one by one the settlers returned to life on the mainland. By the end of the nineteenth century, no farms were left on Michigan Island.

Sand School
Sand Island schoolhouse. Photo taken circa 1910-1920 by lighthouse keeper Emmanuel Luick .

The Sand Island Community
The most extensive and successful agricultural settlement on the Apostle Islands evolved on Sand Island. With a year-round community that numbered about one hundred at its peak, Sand Island attained a level of settlement exceeded only by Madeline Island. There were two distinct settlements on Sand Island. At the southern tip was Shaw Point, settled in the 1870s by Civil War veteran John Shaw. Farther north along the shore was the community of East Bay, where several families, primarily Norwegian immigrants, supported themselves by fishing and farming. Combining these pursuits provided a degree of security: it was unlikely for both crop and fish harvests to fail in the same year. Life on the island was challenging. Today it is hard to imagine the degree of isolation the settlers faced, but one illustration can be seen in the lighthouse log: in November, 1898, the keeper visited his East Bay neighbors and found that "The people over there had lost track of time and did not know either the day or date." Times changed for the people of Sand Island as the twentieth century progressed. Radio brought closer contact with the outside world, but the Depression made economic survival more difficult. One by one, the old families moved to the mainland, where opportunities were more plentiful. In the autumn of 1944, the last year-round residents left the island, and the fields cleared by human toil began to disappear beneath the returning forest.

Visiting the Farm Sites
Remnants of the farming era are most clearly seen today on Sand and Basswood Islands. The Basswood Island loop trail leads hikers to the site of the McCloud-Brigham farm. No buildings remain standing, but the outlines of the clearing are still visible. On Sand Island, a short trail leads from the East Bay campground to the Noreng family farm site. The remains of several buildings are easy to locate.

Visitors should use extreme caution when visiting abandoned farmsteads. Potential hazards include broken glass, rusting farm equipment, and open wells where long-ago settlers drew their water.

Last updated: April 10, 2015

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